Archive for May, 2016


Remember the Greek myth about Icarus? He and his father were imprisoned in a labyrinth, and escaped by making wings out of wax and feathers. Then, elated by the success of the plan, Icarus got carried away and flew too close to the sun. The wax melted and he fell to his death. I guess the lesson here is to keep one’s hubris in check. Pride comes before the fall.

I can relate. I try not to be an arrogant person, but I do take pride in my accomplishments. I don’t think that’s a terrible thing because I’m goal-driven, and I try to see the silver lining when faced with obstacles. I consider myself an optimist, continuing to strive in spite of challenges. I’m also a realist—experience has taught me that even though I hope for the best, I should prepare for the worst. Something is bound to go wrong.

Seems like every time I think I’ve got it together, the universe is quick to school me in humility. Case in point, my career as a high school cheerleader. I’m not the most athletic person, so some of the jumps we did were a challenge for me. The pike? Never going to happen. I could do a high kick though, so I came up with this signature move combining a hurdle jump with a high kick. I was pretty proud of myself until one football game, when I performed said jump kick and fell on my butt in front of the entire town. I scrambled to my feet, brushed myself off, and pasted a smile on my face, trying to convince myself that only half the high school saw me wipe out.

I’ve come to believe I’m cursed. It doesn’t matter how many degrees I earn or how many awards I win, if I start to soar too high, I’m sure to crash. I guess the universe doesn’t want me to get cocky. Being an author is a continuous lesson in humility by the way—there’s plenty of rejection to be faced even after you get published, between trying to get reviews for your book and trying to find gigs. To say one needs a thick skin is an understatement. You need a suit of armor.

I once approached a venue about a speaking gig, and got turned down. Three books later, I finally earned enough credibility for the venue to invite me to come and speak. I was excited. I came early, armed with an excerpt to read and books to sign. Unfortunately, fate had other ideas. My name was misspelled twice—my last name on a sign outside, and my first name on a poster inside. I think I’m justified in feeling annoyed about that, since my name was right there on the cover of the book, prominently featured. Nevertheless, I was grateful for the gig, and chose not to say anything.

There weren’t a lot of attendees, so when a woman walked in right before the event was set to begin, I was thrilled. She took one look at me and said, “You’re not Melissa (insert somebody else’s last name here).” Her tone was slightly accusatory, as if she had been duped and it was my fault for not being the expected Melissa. “No, I’m not,” I said, giving her what I hoped was a winning smile. I proceeded to explain who I was and what my talk was about. I then invited her to join us. She let me finish my little speech, and then, without a word, turned around and left. Her abrupt exit was so unexpected and rude, I couldn’t help but laugh. Sometimes that’s all you can do.

Then there was the time I interviewed for a position as a professor. I flew out to San Diego and put on my best interview clothes, a navy jacket and skirt with a cream top, and a pair of expensive leather heels I’d splurged on. The stilettos were killer. They elevated the outfit and boosted my confidence. They were also my undoing.

pizza 2I sailed through the interview, and was feeling pretty good about things when one of the other professors took me to lunch. After that, I was due to come back to campus to make a presentation, so the interviewers could gauge my teaching abilities. We drove to the restaurant in her car, and she parked next to an island dividing the lot. When I got out of the car, I found the woman had parked close to the curb, so I had to step onto the island, which was covered in small plants. I tried to tread carefully so I wouldn’t trample the ground cover, and successfully made my way around the side of the car to where the professor was waiting. We started walking toward the entrance of the restaurant and suddenly, I noticed my foot was caught on something. Someone had tossed a slice of pizza into the low plants, where it was hidden from view, and my stiletto had speared it. As I walked away from the parking island, I dragged the pizza slice along with me. Are you kidding me? I asked the universe, as I frantically tried to keep up my end of the conversation while discretely using the toe of my other shoe to pin down the pizza slice, so I could free my heel. I’m pretty sure the woman noticed. I didn’t get the job.

I don’t know why these things happen. I know bad things happen to everyone, so maybe I’m not truly cursed. The rain falls on the just and the unjust, no? (And of course, things could be worse. Things have been worse, and I keep getting up each time I get knocked on my rear end.) Maybe spearing the pizza slice was God’s way of letting me know that wasn’t the right job for me, that I wouldn’t have been happy on the tenure track. Maybe the challenges I face serve to guide me, to push me in a new direction I wouldn’t have tried otherwise. I just wish I could learn these lessons without damaging my pride.

© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2016

Raven Girl

This is the story as it was told to me by my mother. One morning when I was seventeen months old, she and I went into the backyard of our house in southern Arizona. She was hanging laundry to dry in the warm desert air, and I was standing in my nightgown, my hair in curlers, munching crackers.

viewShe turned to find me chattering at a Chihuahuan Raven, sharing my crackers with it. In Bible school, I’d heard the story of the prophet Elijah, who took refuge in the wilderness when he was hunted by a wicked queen. Ravens were sent by God to bring him food during his time in exile. I’m not sure how much of the story I understood at that age, but apparently I decided to return the favor, and feed this bird.

I communed with the raven for quite a while, long enough for my mother to run back in the house and grab a camera. The raven, an opportunistic feeder, was intelligent enough to know that a little girl with crackers wasn’t a threat.*

To this day, I feel a sense of awe around ravens, and feed them when I have a spare crust of bread. I still chatter at them too, and sometimes they talk back, in their own way. My early experience with a raven is why ravens and crows are special to me, and why I feature a raven as a character in my fantasy series, the Solas Beir Trilogy.

*If you’re a fan of corvids like I am, check out my previous post, On Ravens. Also, I highly recommend the book, Gifts of the Crow.

© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2016

What We Leave Behind

Go Bag Contents:

1 Hatchet*
1 Frying Pan
6 Rolls Toilet Paper (super important for pretense of civilization)
1 Pack Wet Wipes
1 Can Opener
1 First Aid Kit
2 Camp Forks (not just for roasting marshmallows)
4 Sets Plates, Cups, Utensils
2 Lighters*
3 Fire Starters*
4 Rain Ponchos
2 Swiss Army Knives*
3 Packs Dog Food
4 Mylar Rescue Blankets
1 LifeStraw Water Filter
12 Bottles Water
Dry Goods for 3 Days (note to self: don’t forget pop tarts and top ramen)
4 Missing Persons Posters (plus 1 for dog)

*Not for twelve-year-old boys to use unsupervised. Trust me on this.

Plan for 15 Minute Warning: Grab Go Bag, walk (quickly) to higher ground. Leave dog if necessary.

Plan for 30 Minute or More Warning: Load Go Bag and camping gear (tent, tarp, sleeping bags, flashlights, emergency radio, grill, shovels, etc.) into car, drive to higher ground. Take dog.

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Why cheese? (From the packaging on our rescue blankets.)

In the six years I’ve lived on the Oregon coast, I haven’t felt so much as a tremor. Reality isn’t based solely on my experiences though, and I’d be foolish to assume it does. Our area has a history of earthquakes, so it’s important to be prepared, especially living near a tsunami zone. Emergency management experts for the region say we’re overdue for the big one, an earthquake strong enough to shake the ground for five minutes, causing landslides and a 50-foot high tidal wave. The thought of that is enough to send me into fetal position. Even if the big one doesn’t happen in my lifetime, we’re still at risk for tidal waves originating from across the ocean. That happened in 2011, when there was 9.0 magnitude earthquake in Japan. Fortunately, the waves that reached our shores were small and did minimal damage, but debris from that natural disaster still washes up on our beaches, several years later.

My children regularly practice earthquake and tsunami drills at school, taking refuge under desks for the shaking and then filing out of the building in an orderly fashion to walk up a hill. They know they’ve got about 15 minutes, maybe less, to get to safety, assuming our bridges haven’t crumbled. We know where they’ll be if a quake happens during the school day, and we know where we’ll meet if a different scenario happens, say, they’re at home and I’m at work.

We put together a Go Bag, which is exactly what it sounds like—a bag filled with the essentials we’ll need in an emergency where we can’t stay in our house (earthquake, tsunami, zombie apocalypse, you get the idea). The thing weighs 50 pounds, and it would be tough to carry it alone, but we’ve tried it out and we can all tote it without falling over and kicking the air helplessly like a turtle on its back. If we have a longer warning, we’ve got a plan B, which involves packing more survival gear. We have to assume there will be power outages, and communication will be disrupted if cell towers go down. This is not too scary of an idea though, because every winter we face storms with gale force winds, and we’re used to living days without power.

The most disturbing thing about preparing our emergency kit was creating our own missing persons posters. It was a little like writing your own obituary—a morbid exercise. You have to list your height, weight, hair and eye color, and any identifying characteristics (like birthmarks or scars). That’s so you can be found alive and reunited with your loved ones, best case scenario, but also so your body can be identified if you don’t make it. Like I said, morbid.

Still, we have to assume that one of us could get separated, if somebody is in a different location when the quake hits. We even created a poster for the dog. In an ideal situation, if there can be an ideal in a terrible event like this, we’d have time to get our dog into her harness, or at least attach a leash to her collar, and calmly take her for a walk to our designated meeting point. Odds are, that won’t happen. As neurotic as Gryphon is, she’ll hide under one of our beds the second the shaking starts, and we’ll never be able to coax her out. In that case, we’re just going to have to leave her behind, as heartless as that sounds. We love her, but we can get a new dog. We can’t replace each other. Our piranha, by the way, is toast. The only way Gladiator gets to come along is if he’s dinner.

We’re not really okay with sacrificing the dog and the piranha, but we have to be. We also have to be okay with sacrificing everything else we’re forced to leave behind. I’d love to save family photos, but I just can’t. Maybe, if there’s time, I could grab one or two favorites, but they’ll take up precious room if we’re able to take our car, and there’s no room at all in the Go Bag. Forget about clothing, furniture, or my beloved books—all that is gone in a situation like this. I will grab my lap top if I can, since there are photos on that as well as my works in progress and other information that would be helpful in rebuilding our lives. It’s a sobering thought to look around me and realize all the material goods I depend on—let’s be honest, cling to for comfort—could be gone. But isn’t that going to be the case regardless? I’m not going to live forever, and I can’t take any of those things with me when I die. They’re only material things. What matters—the people I love—those are the things I can’t bear to leave behind.

© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2016

Smarty Pants

Intelligence is a desirable trait. I enjoy talking with smart people, especially if they have a sense of humor. I thought I wanted a smart dog too, but now I’m not so sure. I joke that the next time I get a dog, I want one that’s dumb and lazy. I’m only partly kidding.

IMG_6311We have a Kelpie named Gryphon. She’s similar to an Australian Cattle Dog, and one of the most intelligent breeds. She’s certainly the most observant dog I’ve ever had, watching us all the time, anticipating our commands. When I get ready to go somewhere, she watches me nervously and then goes to her safe place/bed, her crate. I don’t mean to make her anxious, but I imagine some of my own nervous energy rubs off on her, particularly when I’m running late and rushing around. I try to coax her out of her crate, but to no avail.

She keeps a tight schedule. Around seven each night, she starts getting antsy about going to bed. The humans in our house don’t go to bed that early. If I give in and put her to bed, she gets annoyed that we’re still making noise, communicating her irritation through a series of overly dramatic groans. Bedtime is a ritual. First, she lets me know she wants out by turning circles near the back door. I open the door, and she goes out to do her business. Then she zooms off to bed, waiting expectantly for a treat. If we vary from that ritual, she gets grumpy.

Bath time is another ritual. My husband takes her out to play frisbee in the yard, to tire her out. Then we coax her into the bathroom and close the door, preventing escape. Treats are strategically placed in the tub so she’ll jump in, and then we turn on the water, spraying her back gently so she doesn’t freak out. She tolerates the bath, but she doesn’t like it, and it takes both of her adult humans to keep her calm. Any sudden moves will result in a wet dog leaping from the tub, trying to open the door with her paws, even though she’s too short to reach the handle. Thank goodness she doesn’t have opposable thumbs.

I have no doubt we’re partly to blame for her sense of entitlement, but she was strong-willed from the start. With a personality like hers, she would have been a pack leader. In our pack of four humans, a piranha, and a dog, we’ve had to establish who is dominant, and make sure it’s not Gryphon. She can be incredibly sweet, but she can also act like a toddler, digging in her paws when she doesn’t get her way. There have been times when I have looked her in the eye and actually said, “I am the alpha. Do you understand? I am the alpha.” I’m fairly certain she gets it, though she still pushes boundaries. (And yes, I am that crazy woman who has one-sided conversations with the dog and assumes she comprehends what I’m saying. I know for certain she understands the word treat.)

There are other times when I look at her and wonder if she’s part velociraptor. She’s protective of her family, and sounds ferocious when anyone rings the doorbell. The nice thing about this is ever since she came into our lives, we don’t get a lot of door-to-door solicitors. I had a golden retriever when I was a kid, and he was the sweetest dog. If our house had been robbed, he probably would have followed the thieves around, hoping for a pat on the head. Would-be-burglars be warned: Gryphon will eat your faces.

She hasn’t eaten any of our faces (yet), but she’s not a lap dog. Gryphon doesn’t mind if we pet her, but she’s not the kind of dog you can pick up and cart around. She does like being active though, and loves when we go for walks or toss a ball around. She loves the water too, and is fond of chasing waves on the beach. We’ve even taken her for a ride in our canoe at a nearby lake, though she did jump overboard, and we had to fish her out.

IMG_6309In spite of the challenges of having a smart dog, we’ve enjoyed having her around. Gryphon is a quick study, easily learning tricks. She’s eager to please and will do almost anything for praise, playtime, or a treat. She is adorable too, despite occasional bouts of grumpiness. She has doggy eyebrows, resulting in facial expressions that can be downright human. She’s comical when she chases her own tail, holds a treat in both paws so she can nibble on it, or rolls over a toy again and again to make it squeak. My kids love her dearly. I do too, most days. Other days…well, let’s just say on other days I prefer the piranha over the dog. At least the piranha knows who’s boss.

© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2016